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Hymns: A Universal Language

Last weekend one of the things I did was attend a family reunion.  This is only the second year that we have done this, and since we have started it I have seen cousins and in-laws I had not seen in over a decade.  My mother is still living, as are her two brothers and two sisters.  All, however, are in their late Seventies or Eighties.  Our reunion is, in part, a way for them to connect in their last years.

Mostly we eat.  But this time we did something that brought a measure of joy to my mother.  We sang hymns.  Not old hymns set to new tunes but old hymns set to traditional tunes.  These hymns are a great comfort to them, I think, but the pleasing thing was seeing not only the older folks sing them but younger ones as well.  We all knew the hymns.  (In contrast, we didn't all know the Pink Floyd tune my nephew was playing.)

Hymns have a strangeness about them that hearkens back to an older time, even an ancient time.  They don't sound like anything else on the radio or in popular music, and as I've discovered recently, some of the biggest proponents of singing hymns are actually those in their Twenties -- you know, the ones who grew up in churches that sang only praise songs and choruses.  They have a mark of authenticity, depth, and longevity that praise songs do not have.  "Be Thou My Vision" thumps "Lord, I Lift Your Name On High" any day.  It's a more durable melody with lyrics of much greater depth.

But that's not what my mother was thinking last Saturday.  That slight smile that played at her mouth was no doubt one of remembered things.  Maybe she remembered being with her own parents in the Moravian Church in which she was raised.  Or perhaps she recalled a happy time when her children were young and she was settled and very, very needed in her home.  Just maybe she heard the voice of One calling her home.  Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling.  How great thou art.  Amazing grace.  The little brown church in the valley.  The songs give remembrance and hope.  They point back to a treasured past and ahead to a certain future.  And they remind us that not everything changes.  God doesn't.  Truth doesn't.  Hymns shadow that eternality of certain verities that we as Christians hold to communally.  In fact, in hearing them sung different memories may be summoned but there is a communal hope that resides in them.

I won't say that hymns are the only songs that will make it into the canon of universal and eternal language.  Maybe some of the Beach Boys and Beatles songs will too.  But when I'm 80, I suspect I'll want to hear the hymns, not "Help Me Rhonda" or "Ticket to Ride."  Not even "We Will Glorify."  I'm quite sure the hymns will still be around.

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